Sometimes, though, it is the ads themselves I hate. Two years ago, I wrote "you can't find inner peace in a bottle (of iced tea)," about the co-opting of the language of people's movements and of spirituality in advertising. These days, a certain fast-food chain (owned by a corporation with $11 billion in global sales) exhorts us to "join the revolution" by eating a crappy burrito instead of a crappy burger.
The ads I hate most, however, aren't trying to sell us anything - make that "any thing". They're selling ideas. Associations. Lies. These ads are politely called public relations, but more properly called propaganda.
Only rubes listen to environmental alarmists
Take this one, paid for by the BC Salmon Farmers Association.
This is one of a series of ads in which we're invited to eavesdrop on some gullible rubes, people stupid enough to fall for any scam. We can scoff at those dummies, knowing we are smarter, more savvy than they are.
The ad doesn't offer a single fact about farmed salmon, nor describe any controversy. We see no fish, no fishermen, no grilled salmon anchoring a healthy, delicious meal. The people too smart to be deceived - you and I, viewers of the ad - are invited to learn more at a website.
The website is full of statements termed myths and facts. In a clever design, when you arrive at the page, only facts are visible. You have to click to see the myths.
Who sponsors this website? At the bottom, there are six logos. They represent: the BC Salmon Farmers Association, a fish-food supplier ("Knowledge Makes the Difference"), a corporate seafood producer, an aquaculture engineering company, plus two organizations whose names sound like environmental groups, but are, respectively, "the second largest producer of farmed salmon in British Columbia" and "the largest aquaculture company in British Columbia". In other words, all six sponsors of this site have a potent economic interest in salmon farming.
On the other hand, the people and organizations who oppose current methods of salmon farming have no economic interest; their interest is the health of our oceans, animals and people. For another perspective on farmed-raised salmon, see "How Farm-Raised Salmon Are Turning Our Oceans Into Dangerous and Polluted Feedlots", "Farmed Salmon Are Really Bad News – For Us, for Wild or Captive Orcas, and for the Environment", and an excellent, nuanced article offering viable alternatives, from the David Suzuki Foundation: "Salmon farming: A grave concern, a great hope".
Oil is life
Another ad from my propaganda collection touts "a different kind of oil sands". On YouTube, this company's ads are not embeddable, but you can watch one here.
Seen through aerial photography, the tar sands production field looks like a small city nestled in a lush, green forest. We're told the oil is being "recovered" - an amazing bit of semantic propaganda right there - by "a Canadian company," appealing to our love of all things Canadian.
There's no sense of scale - we don't know how big that city is - and we certainly don't see it close-up. We don't see how much water it consumes and pollutes, the toxic mess it leaves behind, the poisoned food chain, the First Nations communities with skyrocketing rates of rare cancers. Just a distant city surrounded by deep forest, with the corporation profiting from that city claiming, "It's a different kind of oil sands".
Another Cenovius ad is even more insidious, and more brilliant. Thirty seconds, no voice over, so even with your TV audio muted, you'll get the message.
First we hear a whooshing sound, the opening piano chords pulse, and we see a blurry image, possibly of a face. "125 years ago, it illuminated a room".
The camera pulls back as the stirring chords rise. Now we see that the blurry face is actually on a TV screen - no, not a TV, some other kind of high-tech screen. The camera pulls back further, revealing a woman in a white coat and a man, vaguely brown-skinned. It's an ultrasound! "Today, it illuminates a life."
Finally, the music swells, pulsing piano joined by shimmering cymbals, and we see the white-coat and the brown man are gathered around a woman, her pregnant belly fully visible. The man and pregnant woman clutch hands, exchange looks of wonder, then turn back to the screen. "Oil is more than just a source of fuel. It's an essential part of product innovation." We are invited to "discover the connection" at a website.
What is this ad selling? Obviously not happy expectant couples or medical technology. It's selling an idea - or even more tenuous, an association. Oil, so beneficial. Oil, important to science. Oil, health care, life-saving. Oil, birth, joyous new life.
Nothing to see here: deadly bacteria is invisible
Please watch this 30-second ad.
Again to the strains of stirring piano, an ad invites us to "fill your plates" with "tender meat, succulent taste, health, and love". People of various ethnic backgrounds recount the events of their days over a meal, one of the most universally shared experiences of human cultures. A father places his hands on his daughter's shoulders as she tries her hand at the barbecue. From a backyard, we see a house lit from within, a powerful image of safety and warmth. Inside, a family gathers for a meal. Maple Leaf Prime.
No outright lies here, merely an association: Maple Leaf Prime is associated with the love, warmth and safety of family. Maple Leaf hopes this will replace the association of its company name with two listeriosis outbreaks that caused the agonizing deaths of 23 people, and serious illnesses of another 34 who survived. Conservative Agricultural Minister Gerry Ritz had a good laugh at the victims' expense; the Harper government continues to dismantle food safety regulations, leaving the corporations to police themselves - or not. Take a peek at this website: Stephen Harper waves goodbye to food safety.
In case the ads don't work - if consumers persist in remembering Maple Leaf as the deli of death - the company also hides its besmirched name. Next time you're in a Canadian supermarket, check out the processed meats sold under the brand name "Natural Selection"; spot the tiny Maple Leaf brand logo. You won't see that logo on the brand name "Artisan"... but keep looking. When you find the company name and address, you'll know that those "artisans" are actually Maple Leaf processing plants.
"Research suggests most people cannot distinguish between sponsored links and actual news sites"
I started collecting examples of televised propaganda after the Deepwater Horizon Gulf of Mexico disaster.
I hope you will recall that BP's then-CEO Tony Hayward inflamed an already disgusted public, first by denying the magnitude of the disaster (a "relatively tiny" spill in a "very big ocean") and by disowning BP's culpability ("this was not our accident ... This was not our drilling rig ... This was Transocean's rig. Their systems. Their people. Their equipment"). Then in a stunning display of arrogance and disconnect, he sailed off on his yacht, complaining about personal inconvenience: "You know, I'd like my life back."
This played badly, to say the least. Hayward apologized, and was forced out of the company with one year's salary - £1 million ($1.6 million Canadian) - and a pension reportedly worth more than £10 million ($16 million Canadian). Then BP went to work. Wikipedia:
On 30 May BP hired Anne Kolton, former head of public affairs at the U.S. Department of Energy and former spokesperson for Dick Cheney, as head of U.S. media relations. BP established a new division, headed by board member and managing director Bob Dudley to handle the company's response. On 4 June BP began running TV ads featuring CEO Tony Hayward as he apologized for the disaster, adding "We will make this right." The company also ran print ads in newspapers including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today and The Washington Post. . . . BP spokesperson Toby Odone told ABC News that BP had successfully bid for several search terms related to the oil spill on Google and other search engines so that the first sponsored search result links directly to the company's website. This is "a great PR strategy" commented Kevin Ryan, CEO of an internet communications firm, and one not used before by other firms facing similar public relations "nightmares," adding that research suggests most people cannot distinguish between sponsored links and actual news sites.In the BP propaganda ads, "community outreach" employees - often brown-skinned, and always with Louisiana accents - tell us that BP was taking "full responsibility for the clean-up in the Gulf, and that includes keeping you informed". While the gentle music swelled, the compassionate, knowledgeable, down-to-earth BP rep clutches hands with ordinary people (you can tell they're ordinary, because they're overweight) and tells them, "BP is listening." People gut fish, men in rolled-up khakis (presumably tourists) cast off in the surf, weathered faces nod sagely at a community meeting. There's a whole series of these ads, the gentle music designed to lull you into dreamland.
And dreamland it is. When the shrimpers whose livelihoods had been ruined were hired to work on the cleanup, they were required to sign contracts forbidding them to speak to media. Meanwhile, dead animals will eventually decompose and wash away, so BP threatened, harassed and intimidated photographers. Out of sight, out of collective memory.
This year, on the one-year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon crime, Democracy Now! ran a series of stories, including: Deepwater Drilling Resumes Despite Unclear Impact of BP Spill: "It is All about Hiding the Oil, Not Cleaning It Up", Death Toll from BP Spill Still Rising as Residents Die from Spill-Related Illnesses, Five Million Barrels of Oil Do Not Disappear, Naomi Klein on how climate change could be exploited by disaster capitalism and militarization, and many others. So what are these BP ads selling? A Big Lie.
The ad campaign reportedly cost BP $50 million, pocket change for the world's fourth-largest company. But it might save itself even that much, while reaching a new generation of consumers who might not watch TV or pick up a newspaper: BP now has a hand in developing California's schools' environmental curriculum.